Cash crop production does not necessarily harm poor economies and communities - and could even act as a catalyst to help meet growing global demand for food - a study has claimed.

The growth of wheat and rice production in low-income countries has brought accusations that the predominance of these cash crops - grown to be sold and exported - has brought with it soil degradation, pollution and local food and water shortages. However, a study by Dutch institute LEI Wageningen found cash crops sold on markets have the opportunity to play a role in improving food security in developing countries.

Cash crop production, which now encompasses far wider range of more crops than traditional exports such as cocoa and cotton, can offer income and employment opportunities to rural economies, claim researchers.

“Farmers producing cash crops can generate income that, in turn, can make them more resilient to a number of problems, both in the economic sphere or related to weather, pests or disease,” says senior agricultural economist Siemen Van Berkum, one of the authors of the report.

The study found the rate of agricultural growth in Africa had accelerated from an average of about 2.5% in the 1980s and 1990s to 3.7% in 2007-10. Less than 10% of crop farmland is used for cash crops, said the report, with most cultivated for food. Significant concerns about such crops remained, however, particularly the susceptibility of farmers cultivating a single crop to pests, diseases and price fluctuations on global commodities markets. These risks can be mitigated by a number of strategies at farm, sector or business and policy level, claims the report. Van Berkum suggests farmers could form associations and co-operatives to give them a stronger position with buyers and make them more resilient to the risk of the market.

The report adds sustainable intensification - increasing food production from existing farmland - is vital to feeding a global population of nine billion by 2050, particularly in Africa where yields are lagging. “Cash crops may have a catalytic effect on agricultural innovations because they add value and increase productivity in rural regions, and help develop institutions to support further growth,” it states.